Each month, as part of an ongoing portrait of emerging talent in the bartending community, PUNCH will host a resident bartender who has demonstrated a strong sense of personal style. For our first installment, Blind Barber’s Orlando Franklin McCray is taking over our bar, and debuting a custom menu of four original cocktails that we’ll serve throughout his month-long residency.
Within the high-volume New York speakeasy, Blind Barber, where popular calls often range from vodka sodas to whiskey on the rocks, head bartender Orlando Franklin McCray has quietly gone about developing an unassuming roster of thoroughly modern drinks.
Though many of these might appear understated at first glance, they’re each marked by the playful, technique-driven style of drink-making that has come to define McCray’s approach to bartending. For example, his Winona Hawkins might look something like an Old-Fashioned, but it conceals a “fruit-washed” whiskey, flavored with dehydrated orange and cranberry, in a clever nod to the muddled fruit concoctions that marred the iconic cocktail for decades. As is true with so many of McCray’s recipes (which will often call on of-the-moment techniques like milk-washing and force-carbonation), much of what makes the drink so unique is what happens out of sight.
Though he’s worked at Blind Barber for the past six years—following a yearlong stint at Brooklyn’s now-defunct locavore restaurant, Chesnut—McCray, a Washington native, credits experiences as a guest at some of the city’s most hallowed watering holes as pivotal moments in taking the gig more seriously.
“The first experience of being in awe of a place and sort of just like, Whoa, what the fuck is this? was at Maison [Premiere],” recalls McCray of the Williamsburg bar, which claimed the James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program in 2016. Further impetus came from a visit to the city’s original Japanese-style speakeasy, Angel’s Share: “I’d been elevating this place in my mind, because it was my favorite place to go drink and it was so special,” says McCray, who says he bonded with fellow bartender, Ben Rojo, over an episode of Futurama. “I was just like, ‘Oh, all of these people are just like me,’” he remembers.
Since then, McCray has taken up a post at Maison Premiere in addition to his role at Blind Barber, where drinks like the aforementioned Winona Hawkins and the Old Haitian—an Old Cuban built on rhum agricole, McCray’s self-proclaimed “spirit spirit”—are garnering him attention as an emerging talent in the New York bar community.
Here, get to know McCray in four drinks.
“Mizu [a brand of Japanese shochu] has a full flavor that can work in most contexts that a clear spirit would, while not excusing itself by tasting neutral,” explains McCray of the choice to build a modern highball on a shochu base. In place of soda water, he calls on fresh-pressed apple juice, force-carbonated for perceived acidity: “Apple juice isn’t acidic enough on its own but the sensation of acidity can be achieved through bubbles with little added dilution,” he explains. “This is a long way of saying that spirit and juice can be as enjoyable as it is simple—don’t think too much about it.”
During a Champagne Cocktail competition, wherein contestants drew a spirit out of hat with which to work, McCray picked the Scotch-based liqueur, Drambuie. “I got Drambuie and didn’t know what to do,” remembers McCray, “so I tried something I’d never done before and milk-washed it.” He then froze the milk-washed Drambuie in a flute, and topped the whole thing with bubbly for a modern twist on the original Champagne Cocktail. As McCray notes, however, the milk-washed Drambuie “tastes great on its own with a little dilution.”
“I had the pleasure of visiting Haiti and seeing some clairin production last year and have been subbing it into classics since then,” says McCray of his decision to update the Old Cuban, a modern classic from Audrey Saunders, itself an inventive spin on the Mojito. By serving it over crushed ice rather than up, in a coupe, McCray finds middle ground between the presentation of the two classics.
“If a guest wants ‘an Old-Fashioned but not an Old-Fashioned’ I’ll make them something like this,” explains McCray of his “fruit-washed” Old-Fashioned, which calls on dehydrated cranberry- and orange-infused whiskey for a shelf-stable spin that cleverly nods to the “new-fashioned,” post-Prohibition take on the drink, which incorporated muddled fruit, marring the cocktail for decades.